Commentary

St. Pierre proves that size does matter

It might've looked like a toss-up on paper, but Georges St. Pierre's rematch with B.J. Penn was anything but a competitive fight Saturday.

Originally Published: February 2, 2009
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

Thinking of spending $44.95 for a replay of Saturday's UFC 94 card? Let me spare you the expense and spoil the ending: size matters.

A redundant lesson, but one that seemed to get buried in the months of preamble leading to the cross-division meeting between welterweight phenomenon Georges St. Pierre and lightweight B.J. Penn. Fans ignored that St. Pierre had, in their previous encounter, managed to win the fight despite the effects of a poke in the eye; there was also little discussion of Penn's losing record at 170 pounds (now standing -- wobbling, rather -- at 1-3).

[+] EnlargeBJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre
Mark J. Rebilas for ESPN.comGeorges St. Pierre's constant pressure and superior size smothered B.J. Penn's offense.

Penn is a sensational martial artist. There are few greater joys in prizefighting spectatorship than seeing him dismantle a worthy opponent at his allowable fighting weight of 155 pounds. But Penn often appears so bored with that dominance that he frequently insists on competing one size up.

Being great isn't enough: He wants to be two or three different kinds of great.

And so we got a bout labeled -- as just about every main event is now -- the "greatest" in the UFC's storied library. (Until it's time to sell us the next one.) We got the color-corrected hype series, the elaborate Flash sites and UFC mouthpieces informing us that this is quite possibly the Most Important Event in Recorded Human History.

And of course we have to agree, because -- well, because they say so. Because they're both dominant champions. Because Penn's talent may just outstrip the limits of his muscular hypertrophy.

In many cases, it would. He has outworked bigger men before: two Gracies, a shell-shocked Matt Hughes. But against St. Pierre, Penn's resolve was dwarfed against an ambulatory slab of granite determined to remove him from consciousness.

St. Pierre isn't just any 170 bruiser -- he's the 170-pound bruiser. Men who cut down from 190 pounds need to pack a lunch when scheduling up with him. Penn, despite a conditioning program that is much-improved from his earlier days of stuttered training, was still a soft-looking 168 pounds. In the end, there was probably a 30-pound difference in lean, functional body mass between the two.

(Homework assignment: Go to the butcher and ask him to put 30 pounds of beef on the scale. Or just take my word for it: It's a lot.)

That mass wasn't simply there for show. While perhaps not Penn's equal in technical ability, St. Pierre is a stunningly adept athlete with a deep bag of tricks. He didn't simply bully Penn. He used his size to execute technique that would've given his opponent trouble even if he hadn't weighed 185 pounds on fight night: persistent takedown attempts, guard passing, brutal strikes from above.

But the question of whether St. Pierre won because he was truly the better fighter -- and the entire point of this sport more or less hinges on answering that query -- hasn't really been satisfied. We only know he was the bigger, stronger fighter.

Watching Penn suffocate under St. Pierre's attack brought about much of the same feeling stirred by Randy Couture's molar-operation of a bout against the massive Brock Lesnar in November. In both cases, the stress of resisting a considerably larger foe catches up to you. This should not appear as a headline in anyone's newspaper.

Would Rashad Evans -- himself a good 30 pounds larger than St. Pierre, if not more -- solve any of life's mysteries by pummeling a welterweight?

Penn's disassembly at the hands of St. Pierre should do nothing to tarnish his legacy as a martial artist. MMA is about grading on a curve. How Penn does at his natural weight of 155 pounds is all that matters. How Royce Gracie did against opponents in 1995, not 2005, is all that matters. Everything's relative.

Penn remains a unique athlete. So was Michael Jordan. He couldn't play baseball. And Penn can't play 170.

The fee for reinforcing that fact was overpriced -- by about $44.95.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.